Feminist Revisions on Madness
The theme of madness is represented differently in Steven Soderbergh’s, Erin Brockovich (USA, 2000) than it is in Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (Australia, 1990). Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) is fighting corporate madness; Janet Frame (Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh and Karen Fergusson) is at war with systemic madness. The one minute sequence where she travels from the ward of her local psychiatric hospital to the infirmary at Seacliff demonstrates Janet Frame’s systemic horror: the terror of her childhood is captured by the large barred window at one end of the room. The nurse who puts her arm around her says, “A holiday at home, you will be as good as new.” But Janet cannot go back to the brutality of her childhood nor to the humiliation of her adolescence. She leaps back under the covers shouting at her mother, “Go away. Go away.”
“She used to be such a happy thing,” her mother says as she leaves. Janet is transported to a worse place than her childhood home. The next shot is an extreme long-shot, a small car travelling down a tree-lined road, and we watch the car move right across the screen. Aurally we are aware of the ominous rocking rhythm of the music, the melody repeating three notes over and over, foretelling the repetitive sounds and rocking motions she will be surrounded by at Seacliff.
As well, Janet is pinned in the car between two other women who are exchanging a mindless call-and-response to each other, perhaps from their Grade I reader: “I had a little dog and his name was Spot.” One of them looks ahead vacantly. The other twists her hair around and her finger. There are no connections, no social conversation in the car, nor will there be in her life for the next 8 years. A sign, Seacliff flashes by the side window. The outside world retreats behind Janet in the oval back window. She is silent, stationary, framed by two bodies, trapped inside a car and soon buried deep in an opprresive mental health system.
The next shot frames Janet’s face outside of the mental asylum day room, looking in. She has escaped her oppressive upbringing only to become imprisoned in madness for most of the next eight years.
Brockovich, on the other hand, is a free spirit fighting corporate madness, as is demonstrated in the sequence when Erin and Mr. Masry (Albert Finney) first meet David Foil (T.J. Thyne), an underling in the employ of PG & E. David’s last name tips us off. His job will be to obscure and confuse a trail so as to evade pursuers. He is in the waiting room, no more than a mail clerk wearing a new suit and tie, slouched so low that his head is barely above the back of the chair he sits on. His hands rest on the brief case that rests on his knees.. With PG & E’s billions of dollars they barely need more than a mail clerk to deliver the corporation’s message to Brockovich and Masry. The madness is the corporation’s offer to the Jensens: not enough money to take care of the family’s medical bills. There is further corporate madness in Mr Foil’s blaming those who are sick. “Poor diet”, he claims; but we have seen a 2-second shot of healthy sandwiches, fruit drinks and fresh cherries at the Jensen home. “Irresponsible lifestyle”, he intones; but beside the healthy food we saw the pile of papers that Brockovich has collected about the toxicity of the Jensen’s environment. Erin’s eye glasses rested on top of her research papers, a clue for us to see what is in them. Through the window we see the Jensen children playing in the contaminated pool water. “Bad genes, ... and bad luck,” he says, but the health problems they experience (cysts, uterine cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, immune deficiencies, asthma, and chronic nosebleeds) are reactions to hexavalent chromium.
Mr. Foil is authorized to offer the Jensens $250,000, highlighting the madness of a corporation that poisons the environment, dictates the amount of money they will offer to their victims and feels so secure that they only send a “mail clerk” to make the settlement offer. David Foil gives us clear body language: his hand touches first his tie, and then his mouth, the tie reminding us that the victims are about to be strangled, and the touch on the mouth, a signal that no truthful words will be spoken by him.
While reminding Mr. Masry of the corporate power he represents, Mr. Foil stands in front of abstract art: circles and squares that overlap each other in the upper quadrant of the picture, a reminder of the levels of power of the corporation and the impossibility of attacking it from the outside.. At the bottom right hand corner of the picture is an amorphous appearing receptacle, sack-like out of which have fallen a few stones, the pittance that is being offered to the Jensens in damages.
Female biopics sometimes paint women as mad. In these two instances, both women use pen and paper to fight madness that is outside of a woman’s body. In the case of Erin Brockovich, the madness is cloaked in corporate respectability. In the case of Janet Frame, systemic madness is the villain. It is touching to hear Janet say, “It is little wonder that I value writing as a way of life when it actually saved my life.” If Erin Brockovich were to speak those words she might say, “I value my research. It saved many lives.”